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Old 06-05-12, 06:10 PM   #1
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Post For scientists seeking extraterrestrial life, Kepler probe is step one

Enlarge / A look at some of the confirmed Kepler planets, which now includes many Earth-sized objects.

It's difficult to imagine a more successful mission than NASA's Kepler telescope, which was sent to space with the goal of spotting planets orbiting distant stars. It has been phenomenally efficient at finding them. In the process, the probe has revolutionized what we know about our galaxy's population of planets. It's easy to think of Kepler itself as a key milepost in humanity's understanding of our Universe. But for at least some of the scientists who work on exoplanets, Kepler is only the first step in a plan that will take decades, and will culminate when we begin searching all the stars in our neighborhood for signs of life.

The scientists in question comprised the World Science Festival's panel on exoplanets: Kepler's Natalie Batalha, the Space Telescope Science Institute's Matt Mountain, and MIT's Sara Seager. The group gave a good background on the discovery of exoplanets, and then provided some ideas of where they thought the research was going. All the ideas ended up with the search for life on other planets.

Kepler and the exoplanet catalog

Exoplanet discoveries have become so commonplace that it's easy to forget we didn't even know any existed prior to 1995. The first discovery announced was greeted with a large dose of skepticism, as some people suspected that the variations used to infer the presence of a planet were inherent to the star itself. Over time, however, we'd built up a catalog of about 700 exoplanets, observed using a variety of methods. Most of these were in the hot Jupiter category, as these were the easiest to spot: their size meant they obscured more of their host star with each orbit, and their mass meant that the star shifted more significantly as the planets circled it.

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